Stars align as Beresheet spacecraft prepares for lunar capture
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Stars align as Beresheet spacecraft prepares for lunar capture

Israeli spacecraft on schedule to jump into lunar orbit on Thursday and land on moon’s surface on April 11

Beresheet engineers released this photo on April 1 of the Arabian peninsula at a height of 16,000 kilometers, photographed from the spacecraft's external cameras. (courtesy Beresheet)
Beresheet engineers released this photo on April 1 of the Arabian peninsula at a height of 16,000 kilometers, photographed from the spacecraft's external cameras. (courtesy Beresheet)

The Beresheet spacecraft has successfully carried out final maneuvers in order to position itself into a spot where it can jump into lunar orbit on Thursday, the SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries team announced.

The engineers said they activated the spacecraft’s engines for 72 seconds early Monday morning, in what is likely to be one of the last maneuvers before the complex lunar capture. On Thursday, the spacecraft will reach the moon’s orbit, and will need to activate the onboard engines at precisely the correct moment in order to enter into an elliptical orbit around the moon.

The four-legged Beresheet, about the size of a small car, is on its last and largest elliptical loop around Earth before it maneuvers into the moon’s orbit on April 4.

Touchdown is planned for April 11 at the Sea of Serenity.

The move requires ultimate precision: if the engines are not activated for enough time, the craft will fail to be captured by the moon’s weak gravitational pull. If the engines are activated for too long, it could overshoot the moon entirely. There is a very small window of opportunity where the moon’s orbit crosses the elliptical orbit of the spacecraft.

Having overcome a few small glitches with an unexpected system reset and some problems with the star tracking navigation system, the spacecraft is on schedule to make the landing.

A computer simulation shows the route that the Beresheet spacecraft will take the moon, with a series of larger ellipses around the Earth until it reaches an orbit around the moon. (courtesy SpaceIL)

Beresheet, which means “Genesis” in Hebrew, lifted off on February 22 from Cape Canaveral in Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the private US-based SpaceX company of entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Last month, Beresheet sent back a photo taken with its “selfie camera,” in which the Israeli flag can be seen 37,600 kilometers (23,000 miles) above Earth.

The NIS 370 million ($100 million) Beresheet spacecraft is a joint venture between private companies SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, funded almost entirely by private donations from well-known Jewish philanthropists. The project launched as Israel’s entry into the Google LunarX challenge for nongovernmental groups to land a spacecraft on the moon. Google ended the contest in 2018 with no winners, but the Israeli team decided to continue its efforts privately.

With Beresheet, Israel hopes to become the fourth country in the world to land a spacecraft on the moon, following the US, Russia, and China.

Beresheet on display before its launch, December 17, 2018. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

If successful, Beresheet will make history twice: as the first private-sector landing on the Moon, and the first craft from Israel to reach the orb.

If Beresheet successfully lands on April 11, the spacecraft is expected to carry out two or three days of experiments collecting data about the moon’s magnetic fields before shutting down. There, all 160 kilograms (350 pounds) of the lunar lander will stay, possibly for eternity, on the moon’s surface, joining approximately 181,000 kilograms (400,000 pounds at Earth weight) of manmade debris strewn across the moon’s surface.

The distance between Earth and the moon is approximately 384,000 kilometers (240,000 miles). Beresheet’s elliptical route, which saves on fuel needs by harnessing the gravitational pull of the Earth, will cover about 6.5 million kilometers (4 million miles). The spacecraft is traveling at a speed of about 10 km/sec (36,000 km/h) on its way to the moon, or 13 times faster than the maximum speed of an F15 fighter jet.

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